I stand by my comments earlier regarding McCain’s problems on economic policy, and he must fix them before the next debate. But McCain was a bulldog all night, aggressively laying out a broad vision for American foreign policy. He looked like a natural, as if you could have the same discussion with him over coffee. This stuff is in his blood, and he didn’t need any debate prep to be able to whip out foreign leaders and historical anecdotes with abandon.
Obama, by contrast, had few frames of reference to historical examples, and he often had to piggyback on McCain’s outline, saying he agreed or disagreed with what McCain had said. The debate seemed to turn decisively at the moment Obama was forced to defend his position that he would talk with Ahmedinejad without preconditions. It was one of his most indefensible positions in the primaries, and he’s no better at defending it now. But McCain gave the best and most multifaceted explanations of how he’s wrong that I’ve heard. He exploded the historical touchpoints Obama has used in the past (Reagan/Gorbachev; Nixon/China) to get away with the charade before Obama could even raise them. He refused to allow Obama to get away with redefining his position yet again, attacking the Illinois Senator’s canard that “preconditions” just means you don’t have to solve all the issues before the meeting. And by giving us a vision into the meeting between Obama and Ahmedinejad (“We sit down with Ahmedinejad and he says ‘we’re going to wipe Israel off the face of the earth,’ and you say, ‘no, you’re not?'”) he mocked Obama in a way that he simply hasn’t been during the entire campaign. That got Obama off his game – he became visibly irritated for the rest of the debate – and it went downhill from there.
Now I don’t think Obama looked foolish. For the most part, he held his own, made cogent arguments, and looked poised. If you’re among those who thinks all Obama has to do to win these debates (and the election) is to look minimally acceptable and presidential, you’re probably happy tonight.
But I’m not one of those people. I think each time that McCain shows himself to be his own man, and a man who brings unique strengths to the office that neither Obama nor Bush can claim, he draws back some of those voters who are reluctant to pull the GOP lever again. If McCain can remind those voters that this election isn’t just about “change,” but that it’s a choice between two very different visions of the future extolled by two very different men, he can draw this election back to its more natural Red/Blue bearings. If he can do that, then it will be up to him to make the closing sale to voters in Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, and Ohio. That’s how he’ll win this election, and he moved closer to doing just that tonight.